Hunting

Hunting Outdoor Life

Lessons From a Lifetime of Tracking Mountain Lions, From the Archives

This story, “The Silent Hunter,” originally ran in the July 1967 issue of Outdoor Life.

I WAS ONLY NINE or 10 years old when I acquired the best dog I’ve ever had. Tip was a Boston bull and German shepherd cross, but none of the hounds I have owned since could equal him at hunting cats. I started Tip as a pup on ground squirrels and rabbits, but he quickly showed a strong preference for house cats, and from that quarry it was only a short step to bobcats. Around Vernon, in British Columbia 100 miles north of the U.S. border, where I grew up on a farm, there were enough bobcats to meet the needs of a boy and his dog nicely. Tip and I did all right.

The winter after I turned 12, I decided to become a cougar hunter. I had read everything I could get my hands on about the sport, and most of the stories said that cougar hunters led their dogs on leash until they hit a fresh track. That was what I’d do.

I was on snowshoes, and I led Tip for four hours. In that short time I learned a great deal about cougar hunting that I had never seen in a story. Every time I started one way around a tree, Tip went the other. If I climbed over a windfall, he crawled under.

Finally I unbuckled his collar and said, “Go get ’em!”

And darned if he didn’t! He found a fresh track—he must have known about it all along—and just 30 minutes after I turned him loose he had a big tom cougar up a tree. I got there as fast as I could, and nothing that has happened to me on a hunt since could begin to match that minute for thrills.

I was a little under-gunned with my .22, but I was long on confidence. The cat wasn’t up very high. I clipped him at the butt of an ear, and he came down just as dead as any bobcat I had ever shot.

“I got there as fast as I could, and nothing that has happened to me on a hunt since could begin to match that minute for thrills.”

Before the day was over, Tip treed a second cougar, a smaller tom, and I killed that one, too. That was the beginning of a lifetime of cougar hunting for both Tip and me. He’s been dead many years, but I’m still at it.

At first it was done in secret—I started playing hooky from school. I’d cache my .22 the day before, leave for school in the morning with Tip trailing along, and pick up the rifle, and then away we’d go.

When my mother got wise, she sold the dog to people living 12 miles away, on the other side of the Shuswap River. It took him six months to find his way back. The new owner came after him, took him home, and turned him loose, and that time he was back at our house the next morning. When I promised to play hooky no more, the man gave him back to me.

Tip would hunt anything I put him on—bobcat, lynx, cougar, or bear. I took 65 cougars with him, but when he was getting old and wasn’t so quick on his feet, he ran one in deep snow and overtook it on the ground. The cat killed him with one swat of a paw.

I expect to go on cougar hunting as long as I can follow dogs. I’m 40 now, and that means I’ve been doing it for 28 years. I’ve put in the hardest days of my life on such hunts, walking until I was sure the next step would be my last, then walking 10 or 15 more miles back to my car long after dark. More times than I can remember, I’ve started out again at daylight the next morning, too. And I have enjoyed each and every minute of it.

From left: The end of a chase—an enraged cat high in a big tree; two of my dogs worry a 187-pound tom, the biggest I’ve shot. Outdoor Life

I’m now a conservation officer and live with my wife and two girls, Gail, 9, and Joyce, 8, at Williams Lake, 250 miles north of Vancouver. Before I took this job, I worked for the British Columbia Fish and Game Branch for nine years as a predator hunter. I haven’t kept a complete score of my cougar kills, but they total over 100, and the big cats are still my foremost outdoors interest.

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For me, no other trophy animal in British Columbia, where I have done all my hunting, can hold a candle to them. The mere sight of a big one’s track—on new snow, some are the size of small saucers—starts my heart beating double time.

Those great round pad marks tell a story that tugs at any hunter’s imagination: here, in the black of night, walked one of the most stealthy and mysterious animals in North America—a magnificent cat padding furtively and silently through the dark timber, a cat seen by few humans besides those who follow dogs to the end of his track.

I find more thrills, excitement, and anticipation in hunting the cougar than in going after moose, caribou, mountain goats, or any other game I have tried. No matter how well a man knows his dogs, he can never be sure just what sort of cougar he is after until he gets to the tree, or what will happen at the finish. Hound men are an incurable lot anyway, and once this hunting gets in their blood, they’re hooked.

The hunter who kills one of the big cats has, on top of the suspense and action of the hunt, an impressive and beautiful trophy. I know of nothing more breathtaking than a full mount of a big tom cougar. It speaks of rugged mountains, deep woods, and shadowy trails. Even a cougar rug is something to look at twice. I have never wondered why the pioneers liked to use the pelts as couch or bed covers, and sometimes even as lap robes.

“The lion is totally unpredictable, and no two of my hunts have been the same. I have known a cat to kill a seasoned hound one day, then tree ahead of a green pup the next.”

Speaking of the cougar as a trophy, one thing that surprises many hunters and causes frequent arguments is his honest weight. The cougar is smaller than his reputation indicates. Full grown and in good condition, the toms usually weigh 135 to 165 pounds. The biggest I ever put on the scales was seven feet three inches long and weighed 187 pounds. Females are usually 75 to 135 pounds.

The lion is totally unpredictable, and no two of my hunts have been the same. I have known a cat to kill a seasoned hound one day, then tree ahead of a green pup the next. I could train a poodle to hunt cougars if he had the nose for it, and if he’d bark he would tree most of them. But sooner or later he’d overtake one that didn’t feel like climbing, and then I’d have to get another poodle.

I’ll admit that, with good dogs, some lions are pushovers, such as those first two Tip treed for me. But most times they’re anything but peaches and cream. A big tom carrying surplus weight is usually pretty short-winded once he’s jumped and pushed hard. If he has recently eaten all the deer or elk or moose he can hold, he’s likely to tree within a quarter of a mile.

But a gaunt female with an empty belly may be good for a five or 10-mile chase through broken rimrock, rough canyons, thick timber the worst going she can find. And if dogs are put down on a cold track and the cat hears them coming and lines out with a good start, both the hounds and the hunter can expect a lot of exercise before they see that cougar in a tree.

In late winter of 1962, in the Black Creek area along the Horsefly River 50 miles east of Williams Lake, a cougar track was seen near a remote country school. Alarmed for the safety of the children, the residents wanted the cat hunted down, and I was asked to go after it.

From left: At this overnight camp typical of those I use on cat hunts, I make supper; my old .22 and a starved female that mauled a boy. Outdoor Life

I took two friends along—Manley Hanks, a guide, and Fred Jones, a rancher and trapper who also did some guiding. Both were from Horsefly. We had three dogs-two of mine and one of Fred’s.

There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, making it a must to use snowshoes. We picked up the tracks 1-1/2 miles from the school. They indicated a big tom but were too old to turn the dogs loose on. If we’d done that, the hounds would have gone out of hearing and the cougar out of the country.

Hunting Outdoor Life

We walked all that day without getting close enough to warn the cougar that he was being followed, and by the time we got back to Fred’s ranch after dark, we had put 25 miles behind us. Right after daylight the next morning, we picked up where we’d left off. That turned out to be as interesting a day of tracking as I have ever done.

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The cougar, still unaware that we were after him, swam the Horsefly River three times. He’d jump off a shelf of ice along shore, cross the open channel in the middle, and climb out onto the ice on the far side. Each time, in order to follow him, we had to look for a place where the river was frozen all the way across.

That day our cat proved that a cougar will feed on carrion readily if he needs to. We found where he had dug out seven different moose heads, left by hunters the previous fall, from under the snow and eaten a snack from each.

That was another 25-mile day, but we were closing in. When we left the track at dark, he wasn’t far ahead, and it seemed likely he’d stay in the area for a day or two.

We drove out, the third morning, in Fred’s jeep and made a big circle around that area. No track came out. We went back, took the track, and followed it, confident that we’d jump him.

We caught up with the cougar in late afternoon after finding his first kill, a moose calf. There were fresh tracks all over the place, and the dogs went frantic. We turned them loose, and they started him less than half a mile away.

He headed downhill in an area of open timber, and I saw him 300 yards away, running straight for me. He came within 30 yards, climbed six feet off the ground in a big pine, and stood looking back in the direction of the dogs.

I had been guilty of a bad oversight that morning. Climbing into the jeep, I had forgotten my rifle in the car we’d used the day before. Now I was armed with nothing but a small hand ax.

My favorite cougar gun, incidentally, is a Browning pump-action .22. It’s light, easy to pack, and all the rifle I need. I use long-rifle hollow points, and if I want to save a skull intact for measuring, I place my shot in the lungs. Hit there, most cats hang on until they wilt and come down dead.

But the shot I prefer, to make sure my dogs don’t get clawed, is in the front of the head, between the eyes and ears and half an inch off center. A .22 hollow point there kills so quickly that the cat often hangs up in a fork and I have to climb to get him down.

On all my cougar hunts I also carry a compass, camera, knife, hand ax, and rope, plus food and a tin to boil water in. The days are likely to be long.

I had no gun when that big tom went six feet up the pine and stopped, so I yapped like a dog. I’ve never seen a lion climb faster. He went up the tree in long jumps, sending bark flying, until he was about 30 feet off the ground. Then he stopped and looked down to see where the extra dog had come from. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he discovered what had done that close-up barking.

Our three hounds were there in a minute, and then Fred and Manley came along with their .22’s and shot the cat out. We skinned him and hiked to the nearest ranch, and the rancher drove us back to our jeep. We got home in time for a late supper.

In those three days, we had snowshoed 65 to 75 miles. Any animal that can give three men and three dogs a hunt of that kind is no small potatoes.

In almost any gathering of hunters, you can start a lively argument by bringing up the subject of how much damage the cougar does to a deer population. Many sportsmen rate him the mortal foe of whitetails and mule deer, and even of elk and moose. This attitude—coupled with the hostility that stockmen feel toward him because of his raids on sheep, cattle, and even horses—is reflected in year-round open seasons in most states and provinces where he is still found, and in the cougar bounties that have long been paid in many places.

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On the other hand, most game managers and even some hunters believe that the big cats render a major service by helping to keep antlered game in balance with its food supply.

“In rough country and wilderness areas, the lion is the deer’s best friend,” wrote Jack O’Connor in Outdoor Life a number of years ago. I agree with him.

I’m sure of one thing. Cougars do not “chase deer out of the country,” as hunters often contend. I have found deer feeding as close as 75 yards to a lion that was sleeping after a kill, and they must have known he was there. While there is no denying the big cat’s fondness for venison and his skill in hunting it, it is far from being his only food. In many areas, rabbits are his bread and butter.

In seven years of cougar hunting in the Cariboo district of British Columbia, I kept a record of the stomach contents of 39 of the cats, all killed in the fall and winter. Rabbits made up the biggest share, 26 percent. Deer meat was second, at 23 percent. Then came carrion, 13 percent; and moose, domestic sheep, and porcupines, each accounting for eight percent. In two cases, the cougars had eaten other cougars.

Dogs and I with proof of cougar cannibalism. Bigger tom deliberately killed, fed on smaller one along Horsefly River, B.C. Outdoor Life

These cats do not hesitate to turn cannibal if given the right opportunity. I have found two clear-cut instances of this. In the first, near Horsefly in December 1960, I skinned a male and a week later killed a female that had been feeding on his carcass for several days. She was in good condition, and there were plenty of deer and moose in the area, so hunger could hardly have accounted for her behavior.

In the second instance, a big cougar deliberately killed and fed on a smaller one. That happened in March 1961 along the Horsefly River. There was 14 inches of snow on the ground, and the tracks told the whole story.

Both animals were toms. The big one had trailed his victim for some distance, both had swum the river, and then

LATE THAT AFTERNOON, we got an unexpected break. Richter saw a gaunt cougar cross the road about half a mile from the attack scene. We put four dogs down, and they treed only 100 yards from the road.

The female cougar we found was about three years old, and she was just skin and bones. Over six feet long, she should have weighed 100 to 125 pounds. Instead, she weighed 70, and examination showed that she was starving.

I believe cougar litters born in times of rabbit abundance learn to hunt rabbits but not deer. If a rabbit die-off occurs, these young cats get hungry before they learn to go on a venison diet. They are the ones that come into dooryards and kill dogs and goats. I’ve known them to starve to death in a deer area. I’m sure this female was one of that kind, driven by extreme hunger to attack young Simpkins.

Such happenings are rare, and hunger accounts for most of them. Normally, man has little to fear from this big, stealthy cat. But that doesn’t make him any less interesting in my book. He doesn’t need to be a potential man-killer to qualify as a great game animal.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever hunt any of the other big cats such as tigers, leopards, African lions, or jaguars. But as long as there are cougars in my home mountains to provide excitement for me and my dogs, you won’t hear me complain.